Chews your track … Simon Goh realised the power of music in the '90s. Photo: Jim Rice
MUSIC MAY ALWAYS HAVE been a significant part of Ben Milgate's life, but it wasn't until his travels to Argentina shortly after opening Porteno with business partner Elvis Abrahanowicz that the chef really experienced its impact in a restaurant setting.
''It was a place called Casa Cruz and they had this playlist going that was just reeling off good song after good song - things like Radiohead and the Strokes - and that was the first time I remember being in a restaurant [that wasn't ours] where the music created this awesome vibe,'' Milgate says.
He and Abrahanowicz manage the music at their restaurant, the two shuffling iPod tracks as they juggle both the pans and their kitchen staff. ''Music is a pretty powerful thing when it come to life experiences,'' Milgate says. ''It cements moments.''
If music be the food of love ... Food is the New Rock.
Playing upon two of humankind's most primal senses, the marriage of food and music is certainly no new commercial phenomenon. As far back as the late '90s, restaurateur and Chinta Ria emperor Simon Goh was harvesting his own success from the symbiotic relationship with a cookbook and CD set (Hot Food, Cool Jazz) that served as a lucrative aside to his Chinta eateries.
Today, the concept has exploded and become much more sophisticated.
Driven by ever-shrinking restaurant margins and the preponderance of the rock-star chef, the purpose of music is to help augment the former, and to create a more expansive cult of personality (thereby a point of difference) around the latter.
''We always decided we would have quite loud rock'n'roll,'' explains Milgate, for whom music is clearly part of cultivating a personal brand of hospitality (Kings of Leon's debut album, Youth and Young Manhood, was the soundtrack to their first year of opening). ''We had people coming in saying 'This is great,' or people saying 'Could you turn it down?' Which we never did. There are plenty of other quiet restaurants in Sydney if you want a quiet restaurant.''
Over at MoVida Sydney, venue manager Andy Jacoora takes a different approach.
''We turn over tables quite a number of times during the course of the night and because of the style of restaurant - it being tapas - people aren't going to lock in for a three or four-hour dinner,'' Jacoora says. ''We try to get music upbeat to reflect the style of service.''
Although seemingly a small part of MoVida's dining atmosphere, it nonetheless has a powerful impact, particularly given the Spanish style of grazing carries an emphasis on drinking (the restaurant's deep drinks list purveying the liquid best of Spain). ''We don't necessarily look at putting on music so diners spend more,'' Jacoora says, ''it just seems to happen as a result of getting that nice buzzing and bustling atmosphere going on.''
Research appears to back up the impact of music. The Journal of Consumer Research cites a study demonstrating diners extended their dining time by almost 25 per cent, ordered 41 per cent more alcohol and made a 15 per cent higher contribution to gross margin when the atmospheric music was slow (less than 73 beats a minute) compared with when it was fast (more than 91 beats a minute).
Australian chefs facing financial pressures are finely tuned to its importance, some even following the US trend as reported by The New York Times for restaurateurs to call in professional music mixers to establish a winning playlist. Neil Perry has enlisted Baz Luhrmann's music supervisor, Anton Monsted, as the brains behind the tracks played at each of his seven restaurants.
While Perry picks each restaurant's overarching music genre, the chef leaves it to the musical maestro to create the playlists he feels best designed to enhance the dining experience: be that a mix of classical operatic drama for Melbourne's newly opened Rosetta, or a recent '80s-themed Chinese banquet at Sydney's Spice Temple celebrated to the sounds of the Eurythmics' Sweet Dreams and Billy Ocean's When the Going Gets Tough among other well-known anthems of the era.
''Lots of people don't realise how many moving parts there are in setting up a restaurant,'' muses Perry, who says he listens to Monsted's quarterly-produced mixes in the car before sending them on to the restaurants, nixing any tracks that jar with his idea of how the space should sound. ''There is the quality of the ingredient, of the wine and the wine service, but also the quality of design - we think about banquette heights, size of tables, paths of travel - and a very important part of that is what people are listening to. It is just one more layer and it's a competitive business, so the more layers you can get right, the more longevity your restaurant will have.''
Of course, not every chef or restaurateur views the process quite as scientifically. Momofuku maestro, New York's David Chang, riffs on US-based podcast Food is the New Rock (where chefs talk music and musicians talk food), clearly subscribing to the dictate: ''Play what you love and screw the outcome.'' He raves over the ''underrated'' Phil Collins: ''the Genesis era, now that's something I need to play more of''.
Chinta Ria's Goh may be slightly less strident with his music-meets-food philosophy but he fits the Chang dictate that feel should trump formula. ''If you look at the whole structure of Chinta Ria, it's based on jazz and, a lot of the time, it's like a personal story of myself,'' he explains, noting the romantic overtones of the jazz played at his Sydney venture, Chinta Ria Mood For Love. ''It's important I play music that is pertaining to my life.''
And, like others, Goh is hyper-conscious of the potential for music to distance as much as it engages. He points out the vagaries of jazz as a genre, noting its potential to ''be very obstructive'', and says outside sensory triggers - the weather, for instance - need be taken into account during the course of daily music selection.
Certainly Carla Jones, chef at Surry Hills's 4Fourteen, is similarly aware of the potential pitfalls of making music integral to the restaurant experience. ''The staff love to come and add their [musical] influence but there are times they get it wrong and we have to change it over,'' admits Jones, who says constant vigilance of diner reaction to soundtracks is a necessary evil. ''We say [to staff], 'It's not your house, it's not your party. You can't put on dance music. We're not a nightclub.'
''The music has the power to change the atmosphere, change the vibe of the restaurant - for better or for worse - and you need to be aware of that.''
It sounds like a lot of hard work. But get it right, Jones advises, and the result can be unforgettable.
''We had a big lunchtime function and they were having a bit of fun so we put on Elton John's Bennie and the Jets and they had a bit of a sing,'' she says, with a smile. ''It's all about creating a better experience.''
Tunes to chew by
The top food and music matches - by occasion - from some of the city's most enthusiastically musical chefs and food industry veterans.
Carla Jones, 4Fourteen, Fitzroy Street, Surry Hills.
Occasion Sunday afternoon with friends.
Genre ''I wouldn't say I stick to a single genre.''
Playlist Jurassic 5, the Gaslight Anthem (Sink or Swim), the Black Keys.
Andy Jacoora, MoVida Sydney, Holt Street, Surry Hills.
Occasion Barbecue reunion of old friends.
Genre ''Growing up in the '70s … most are all into rock and blues.''
Playlist Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Pixies, Fleetwood Mac and Bon Jovi.
Simon Goh, Chinta Ria Mood For Love, Pitt Street, Sydney.
Occasion Weeknight kick back.
Genre ''My ideal Monday to Thursday would be listening to sentimental jazz.''
Playlist Chris Botti (When I Fall in Love), Shirley Horn (Here's to Life), and Gene Harris (Funky Gene's).